Bridge scandal opens lane for Port Authority critics

Some transportation watchers see a bright spot to Bridgegate — a chance to shine some light on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has faced years of accusations about patronage and mismanagement.

This week’s political maelstrom over traffic jams affecting Fort Lee, N.J., served as many Americans’ introduction to the 93-year-old agency that commands an empire of tunnels, five airports, the East Coast’s biggest port, a commuter rail system and one of the nation’s largest police forces.

But in the world of truckers, shippers and New York commuters, the congressionally chartered Port Authority has become infamous for its sky-high tolls, a history of politically connected hiring, and an odd management structure that puts much power in the hands of the New Jersey and New York governors while giving them plausible deniability for the agency’s actions.

“They fall through the cracks of accountability,” said John Corlett, the legislative director for AAA of New York, which is suing the authority over a nearly 50 percent toll hike the agency passed in 2011. “They don’t answer to anybody.”

But now, some political figures in New York and New Jersey see an opening toward overhauling the authority following revelations about deliberately engineered traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge.

“The only way this can be fixed is with a disaster like just happened,” Robert Boyle, the authority’s executive director under former New York Gov. George Pataki, told Capital New York. “And we ought to seize this opportunity.”

On Thursday, a New Jersey Senate panel passed a resolution asking Congress to “reexamine the organizational structure and management of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,” and to take steps “to increase accountability and transparency.”

That request could be tempting to U.S. Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who wrote to the Port Authority last month asking for answers about the Fort Lee lane closures. The authority has until Wednesday to respond. On Thursday night, Rockefeller said he had no plans to hold hearings just yet.

“I don’t put us out of the game entirely,” he told The Record. “I just don’t think a hearing at this point — it would be seen as entirely political and my guess is we wouldn’t get many answers.”

Rockefeller suggested he would let federal prosecutors take the lead initially and step in at a later point.

“I think they got a big fat problem there,” the West Virginia Democrat said. “Am I convinced [Gov. Chris Christie] didn’t know about it? No I’m not.”

Rockefeller has previously tangled with David Wildstein, the authority official who on Thursday pleaded the Fifth rather than answer questions about the bridge scandal. In 2012, Wildstein sharply criticized then-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) during a hearing on the authority’s toll hikes, drawing a rebuke from Rockefeller.

The authority has defended the toll hikes, citing “unprecedented challenges” like declining revenues and increased security costs following the Sept. 11 attacks.

It has also rejected the patronage accusations, telling The Record in 2012 that “the agency stands by the new employees it has brought on and the dedicated employees hired over several decades under previous administrations, who work diligently every day to help the bi-state agency achieve its mission of economic growth and job creation.” (The newspaper had written about dozens of jobs at the authority going to “Christie loyalists.”)

Before he died last year, Lautenberg — himself a former authority official — was trying to rein in the authority’s ability to raise tolls. Along with Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Lautenberg introduced legislation that would have given the federal Department of Transportation the power to block unfair toll hikes. (DOT had this power until 1987, when a previous law removed it.)

AAA says Grimm, who wasn’t available for comment, will reintroduce the legislation soon.

“When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong,” Lautenberg said when introducing the legislation. “While the Port Authority and the two states are struggling to explain why these dramatic hikes were imposed, commuters are suffering. There’s a clear need for federal oversight here to make sure toll revenue is being used appropriately and not going to fund excessive salaries or political patronage jobs.”

Patronage and financial opacity were what New York and New Jersey were trying to avoid when they teamed up in 1921 to create the Port Authority with congressional approval.
At the time, similar authorities were popping up through the country. Voters and legislators thought self-funded agencies and their appointed leadership would provide transparency and remain free from political influence.

In the following nine decades, the Port Authority sprawled and now has a bigger budget than 26 states. It operates the largest port on the Eastern seaboard, bridges and tunnels connecting New Jersey to Manhattan and Staten Island, five airports (including three of the nation’s 20 busiest) and the PATH commuter rail. It has a 1,600-member police force.
The authority has always been subject to political concerns. The organization has long been run by an unspoken agreement in which the New Jersey governor appoints the authority’s chairman and New York’s governor picks the executive director. But a more recent tradition allows the New Jersey governor to pick a deputy executive director, further muddying the chain of command.

“In recent years … outside political demands, mainly coming from the governors’ offices, have generated jobs for the politically connected — initially just a handful for each state, but growing steadily over time,” Jameson Doig, a Princeton University professor and the author of a history of the Port Authority, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. “Their political patrons have protected these men and women from removal, and the executive director and senior staff members have had to work around these individuals, whose qualifications have in most cases been more political than substantive.”

Boyle told Capital New York that the tradition of allowing the New Jersey governor to pick a deputy executive director should end, because it creates the atmosphere of “a house divided.” Christie’s appointee to the post was former state Sen. Bill Baroni, who resigned in December amid questions about the bridge lane closures.

Critics have also homed in on the cost overruns and delays in constructing the new World Trade Center project. An audit of the agency in 2012 found that the cost of constructing the new trade center had ballooned to $14.8 billion, up from $11 billion in 2008. The audit also called the agency “dysfunctional” and demanded a “top-to-bottom overhaul of its management structure.”

AAA’s suit over the toll hikes alleges the fees are actually going to pay for cost overruns on the World Trade Center construction and violate a federal law requiring tolls to be set at “just and reasonable” rates.

By 2015, it will cost $15 for a car to cross any of the three bridges or two tunnels into Manhattan from New Jersey if you’re paying in cash. (Rates are lower for E-ZPass users.) For a five-axle truck, the toll will be $105. The highest truck toll in the U.S. outside the New York City area is $37.50 to cross from New Jersey into Philadelphia.

“They make a roughly 65 percent profit on the bridges and tunnels,” said John Lynch, the vice president for federation relations at the American Trucking Associations. “Where is that money going?”